New York Police Department barricades are seen Sept. 9 near the residence of Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Vatican nuncio to the United Nations, in New York City's Upper East Side community. The barricades will be used for security purposes when Pope Francis stays with Archbishop Auza during his visit to New York Sept. 24-26. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

'Unprecedented' security for Pope despite no credible threats

By  Kevin Johnson, Religion News Service
  • September 17, 2015

WASHINGTON - Less than a week before Pope Francis begins his highly anticipated trip to the United States, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy said Sept. 16 there are no credible threats against the pontiff.

“There is nothing that we’re overly concerned about,” Clancy said in an interview with USA TODAY as authorities prepared to set in motion a massive, rolling security operation that will shadow Francis’ journey from the capital to New York before his departure Sept. 27 following an open air Mass in Philadelphia.

Clancy described the security effort as “unprecedented” in scale, largely because of the enormous swath of the East Coast that must be secured. It is a task made more complex because Francis’ travels coincide with the 70th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the arrival of 160 heads of state.

“This is definitely challenging,” said Clancy.

Though Clancy said there were no specific threats against the visit, Francis’ U.S. journey begins amid heightened concern about domestic terror attacks inspired by radical groups such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS. Dozens of alleged Islamic State recruits in the United States have been swept up by federal authorities in recent months, many of them fueled by the terror group’s aggressive social media campaigns targeting disaffected young people.

Last month, a 15-year-old Philadelphia-area boy was arrested for allegedly pursuing a plot against Francis, two federal law enforcement officials said. The arrest, which was not announced at the time, was outlined in an internal bulletin prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

The law enforcement officials, who are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the boy’s alleged activities in part involved the distribution of information on explosives through social media. The activities, the officials said, appeared to represent more of an aspiration to such a plot than a fully formed and imminent threat.

Clancy did not comment on the incident, saying only that the security plan has sought to counter all types of potential threats, from those directed or inspired by terror groups to so-called lone wolf attackers — like Dylann Roof, who is accused in the Charleston, S.C., church shootings — who often have little or no contact with law enforcement authorities before their strikes.

“We have to be prepared for anything,” Clancy said.

Security preparations for the Pope’s visit began nine months ago as federal and local authorities began co-ordinating the far-flung logistics for a most unusual dignitary who desires to be among the people rather than secluded behind bulletproof glass or bundled into heavily armoured cars. In June, Clancy and other agency officials travelled to Rome to observe the Pope’s public appearances and close interactions with thousands along designated parade routes.

As a result, some of the U.S. security requirements have been daunting.

In New York, home to some of the nation’s largest public events, Police Commissioner William Bratton recently described the approaching papal visit and the UN gathering as the “largest security challenge” the city and police department has faced.

In Philadelphia, where the mounting enthusiasm has given rise to popedelphia.com, an online marketplace for home rentals and all things Pope, there is considerable anxiety. Street and bridge closures, designed for increased security, have some referring to a “Popepocalypse.”

Clancy said security teams have sought to allay concerns, meeting directly with scores of business and community leaders in all three cities.

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